Thursday, April 26, 2007

Balance and Unity

posted by Flynn N.A.S.A. grant artist Selene Colburn, writing about her work-in-progress, The History of the Future Suite

Twelve dancers on Sunday, and a baby. Josh wants to know when he gets to throw somebody and I’m still wondering how to balance the small, the tiny against the potency of the many.

I keep giving instructions about the unison form, which now includes some much-needed level-shifting in the form of a kneeling sequence, as such: “Your goal is to execute these moves in any order, until you are doing this phrase in unison at the end.”

The unspoken goal is to make an interesting or pretty or compelling or watchable or thought-provoking or engaging dance along the way. Meghan is really good at asking me those “What are you really after?” questions. Otherwise, as she pointed out a couple of weeks ago, wouldn’t we all just do the phrase in unison right at the start and be done?

Because we were a big group, we got to watch medium-sized groups doing this. It’s really powerful when there are long stretches of almost-unison. The vocabulary is so limited that as a viewer you can take in the pattern and variation that occurs. Some of the watchers said it was really beautiful. We got better at ending together without talking about it.

I tried to make people articulate the group thinking/being/acting that occurs in improvisation, especially as there are some seasoned improvisers in the group. We agreed that you can see it, you can hear it, and in a much less tangible way you can feel it—it feels like a rippling effect maybe.

Tonight I’m heading into the studio and I’m going to bring research materials for both the solo and the group work. I’m looking for books on formal systems of gesture, e.g. sign language and elocution manuals. If anyone has any ideas I’m eager to hear them.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Actors Appreciate Student Audiences

posted by Christina Weakland, Director of Education

This Tuesday morning I came to work with a spring in my step. Student matinee show days are always like that—you can’t help but smile when you see a house full of schoolchildren excitedly anticipating the magic that awaits them onstage, listen to the buzz of their uncontained enthusiasm, and most of all hear the big “Ooooooooooh!” when the lights finally go down and that fantastic red curtain goes up. Over 43,000 children come through the Flynn doors every year for school-time matinees that cover topics as wide ranging as healthy body image to Shakespeare to the Underground Railroad, and I bet that the majority of our community doesn’t even know that such a program exists.

But this past Tuesday I learned something I didn’t know as well. I didn’t know that our Flynn school audiences were actually well-known within the community of touring theater companies for their rapt attention and engagement in performances! After this Tuesday’s 9:30 am performance of Color of Justice, a moving look at the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that ultimately set the Civil Rights Movement on a winning course, I took a Flynn teaching artist down to the green room to chat with the actors from Theatreworks USA in between shows. Karen was teaching post-performance companion workshops in schools and wanted to ask a few questions in order to have an inside scoop for her classes.

The actors were as gracious as could be, giving us some of their precious downtime to talk about the touring experience. Not at all the “glamorous life” of lore, touring is tough on performers—keeping them far from friends and family for months at a time. But as they touched on some of the harder aspects of life on the road, one of the performers told us what a treat it is to know that they’re coming to the Flynn, where not only is there a highly-skilled technical crew to help them set up, run, and break down the show, but most importantly there are highly-prepared and highly-engaged audiences—who make the challenges of performing worthwhile. “We can TELL,” he said. “We can TELL when students have been prepped for a performance. In other cities it’s all…” [He and another actor broke into a mime of young audiences fidgeting, text messaging, and poking one another.] “But here, they’re alert, they’re attentive, and they GET it—we can tell.”

What a thrill, to hear that the work we care so much about—creating comprehensive study guides and developing classroom workshops to prep students for performances—makes such a notable difference to performers. We knew it mattered to teachers and kids, we hear that in evaluations all the time and it’s immensely gratifying. But to know that it’s palpable from the stage itself—that’s really saying something!

Kudos to Vermont’s students and teachers for holding live performance in the high regard it deserves as both an educational tool, and as a valuable life experience in its own right. I wish we could give YOU a hand as enthusiastic as the one that 3rd-8th graders gave the actors of Theatreworks USA this week!

Color of Justice photograph by Jean-Marie Guyaux

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hand Dances

posted by Flynn N.A.S.A. grant artist Selene Colburn, writing about her work-in-progress, The History of the Future Suite

I’m not sure exactly what to focus on at times when I’m working in the studio alone. It’s a trade off between building the small, gestural movements for my solo and pushing my semi-injured, post-childbirth body into recapturing a more expansive vocabulary through improvisation. I usually end up doing a little of this, a little of that. Last night I made two phrases that started from with the hands, but rippled through the body more than usual. I practiced handstands. I danced with reckless abandon to the musical stylings of my muse Chan Marshall, while someone peered through the window.

Sometime between last night and this morning, (post-Lost, pre-3 am nursing?) my brain started fitting a bunch of separate ideas together for the group work., beginning to get a picture of how one cohesive piece might emerge.

And while I was trekking from the car to my office, I got an idea for a fill in the blank writing exercise (“In the future….”) to generate material that might or might not be used as a score for the group piece.

photographs by Selene Colburn

Phenomenal Flamenco in FlynnSpace

Box Office Agent Chaim Rochester posts about flamenco guitar master Juan Carmona's performance on Friday, April 13.

Carmona was amazing. The music was beautiful, and the dancing percussionist [Manuel Gutierrez]? Out of this world. I mean, I'm sure there are better "dancers" out there, but it just completed the whole "We're a badass pack of brazen Spaniards" image so perfectly.

As a musician myself, I was mesmerized by Carmona's seemingly effortless execution of technique, and impressed with his humble demeanor. A true master and clearly the leader of the group, he was also duly respectful of the form and allowed the other members to shine. The smoky impassioned vocals, spirited flute playing, and subtle anchor of the bass were all thouroughly complementary of one another, while underneath it all the percussion kept a smooth, lively rhythm that tied it all together.

I've had an interest and appreciation for flamenco since discovering my mother's old Carlos Montoya albums as a child and have seen live performances on several occasions. This was by far one of the most riveting, and I surely hope to see Carmona return to The Flynn in the future.

photograph of Juan Carmona is courtesy of the artist

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tricky Endings and Maggots

posted by Flynn N.A.S.A. grant artist Selene Colburn, writing about her work-in-progress, The History of the Future Suite

Another wonderful Sunday—this time there were nine of us.

We began with a brief warm-up, then quickly got into some walking improvisations, to loosen everyone up and start tapping into on-the-fly composing practices. Even in these simple exercises we got to a few moments of working collectively as a group, the whole organism making choices together. Exciting, and really kind of amazing, considering many of us had just met.

I taught everyone a simple gestural phrase of three movements—your arm reaches over your head, you cross your arms across your chest, you put your hands on your hips—and for the next hour or so, that was our vocabulary for the unison form (you can do any of those three movements in any order with stops; the end comes when everyone is doing the phrase in unison). We added some pivots into the mix to tweak the mostly frontal facing.

Our work in the form evolved very similarly to the week before with Rachel and Susan. The first couple of times the unison comes out of nowhere and it seems a little bit magical. As you start pushing the form, the ways the unison develops gets more complex. It can come on as a slow burn and everyone may not be in agreement about when it begins. So how to you know when to stop, without calling the ending verbally? Tricky. Actually, one of the most amazing improvisations of the day came from a group who was working really hard to get to an unspoken ending. The level of attention was incredible, which made people’s choices really fascinating. I need to think about the consensual end a bit more—there may be something else I can build into the form (or maybe building too much structure will dispel that zing that comes from the attention that’s currently required).

We closed by working on some of the early mechanics of what I’ve been thinking of in my head as “up and over” or “the great leap forward,” a continuously moving form consisting of a huge mass of bodies scrambling over one another like a wave. CeCe gave my image a good description: “It’s like maggots crawling over a pile of garbage.” For that moment we focused on getting one body over another, forgoing the fluidity and proximity of maggots (something to aspire to!). One person forms a stable base by kneeling on all fours; two supporters help take the weight of someone who walks over the kneeler as if they were a bridge.

Everyone was such a great sport, and so thoughtful and wise. I’m really enjoying seeing how the cast evolves.

photograph courtesy of Selene Colburn

Phishy Anniversary at the Flynn

It's a sweet anniversary for Phish Food—celebrating 10 years as one of Ben & Jerry's most popular ice cream flavors! The Vermont sweetailer debuted its decadent Phish Food—chock full of fudge fish in creamy marshmallows—at the Flynn during a sold-out 1997 Phish show, as the Burlington-based band rocked the MainStage. Were you there? Wish you were? Relive the jam-band's glory days with three free online downloads of the Flynn show, available now with the purchase of a Phish Shake at your local scoop shop.

Sweet tip: Today, April 17, is Free Cone Day! Visit your local scoop shop between 12 and 8 pm for a tasty treat!

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Sprout and the Bean

posted by Flynn N.A.S.A. grant artist Selene Colburn, writing about her work-in-progress, The History of the Future Suite

I spent last night working on some gestural phrases for the group and/or solo work. I like that there already seems to be a lot of overlap. I’m quite curious about what it looks like when a large group of people execute a very minimalist set of physical tasks and eager to play with that this weekend. How small is too small? How will the volume of bodies and the potency of unison offset the subtlety of a brief set of very simple movements confined to the hands?

I’m sure there is a parallel in visual art to this. Robert Smithson comes to mind (very simple concept, grand execution), but perhaps a better example would be someone who works in multiples. Michal Rovner? Carl Andre (who I hesitate to mention because of my love of Ana Mendieta, but the shoe does fit)?

Also, if you’re going to make gestural work, there’s no better mood music than Joanna Newsom. Talk about tiny but huge.

On further reflection Vanessa Beecroft, for whom I do confess a certain fascination, comes to mind, but I will not make anyone wear a thong. I promise you that!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Progress of a Work-in-Progress

Greetings. I’m Selene Colburn, the current N.A.S.A. grant awardee. I’ll be blogging about my experiences developing improvisational movement forms for The History of the Future Suite here over the next few months.

I’m also looking for volunteers. A work-in-progress showing of The History of the Future Suite will take place on June 17th in Flynn Space. You may participate in the development of the work without performing, and you may perform without attending every session. We meet on Sundays from 2 to 4 pm. Email me at if you think you might be interested and I’ll tell you how it works.

I’ve been working on my own between head colds for several weeks now, but I just started experimenting with the improvisational forms I’m developing for groups last Sunday. I worked with Rachel and Susan—two seasoned improvisers—which was a great way of testing the outer limits of what I’m calling the unison form. Basically, dancers are confined to the vocabulary of a short phrase, which they ultimately execute in unison. So we know the end, but how we get there is up for grabs.

After doing it only a couple of times our sense of what constituted an ending (even when the results were predetermined) became more nuanced and muddy. This is completely concurrent with reading I’ve been doing in the field of psychology about how we imagine our futures. As humans, we’re not very good at it. We leave out the messy stuff in our minds, so that by the time we get where we’re going it looks nothing like what we thought it would. Or it fails to make us happy in the ways we expected.

Tonight I’ll be heading into the studio again to work on setting the phrase for the unison form (because I’m a control freak!) in preparation for this Sunday’s group work. I’ll also be working on a solo that layers simple gestures, footwork, and spoken text—a kind of patting your head while rubbing your belly sort of exercise (the only virtuosity that’s left to me at this point!).

Want to know more? Check out this Seven Days article.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Op-Ed Recounts Racial Profiling of Flynn Guest Artists

The Flynn Center recently hosted Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Company with their original work Scourge, addressing issues of Haitian-American identity and racism through the media of dance, music, and spoken word performance. A week's worth of residency activities around the county culminated in a standing ovation for the cast of this remarkable MainStage performance.

On April 8, the Burlington Free Press printed Erhard Mahnke's op-ed about another part of the Scourge performers' experience in Vermont. Mahnke, a community member and friend of one of the performers, was driving some of the cast members back to their hotel and was stopped by the police while driving through Winooski. Visit this link to read about his experience.

Special thanks to the Burlington Free Press for extending the availability of this story on-line.